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Film Review: Zama

13 June 18 words: Adam Wells

Lucrecia Martel's big-screen adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto's 1956 novel is currently screening at Broadway Cinema... 

Director: Lucrecia Martel

Starring: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele

Running time: 115 mins

After a nine year break, Argentine director Lucrecia Martel returns with the most bizarre – but also spellbinding – film of the year so far. Based on a 1956 novel by Antonio di Benedetto and set in seventeenth century Paraguay, Zama chronicles the dissatisfaction of the eponymous Don Diego de Zama, an officer of the Spanish Empire and his various attempts to be transferred away to the more glamourous Buenos Aires. However, simply describing the loose, absurdist plot of Zamais to do it a great disservice, with the film eventually revealing itself to be a rumination on the passing of time, worries of aging, and deep existential fears of the futility of existence.

For a large portion of Zama, the action (for lack of a better word) is entertaining but unconventional almost to the point of inaccessibility. The tone lurches from disturbing to funny to horrific, often within the same scene, leading to general sense of unease to match that felt by the film’s protagonist. Don Diego starts off resentful of the material aspects of his life – his financial problems, sexual frustrations and current residence – but, as the story goes on, this develops into existential dissatisfaction concerning his place in the world, with both his physical and mental state slowly decaying as his situation gets worse and worse, until the film eventually devolves into feverish madness. This all comes to head when, after his many attempts to return home prove fruitless, Zama volunteers to join the hunt for Vicuña Porto, the semi-mythical man who has lingered on the edge of the film in the background and in whispers, only to find this task even more impossibly nightmarish than his life in the city.

While difficult to describe, and even more difficult to recommend, there has never been a film like Zama

Strong anti-colonial themes also run through Zama, with the corruption and ridiculous nature of the Spanish Empire frequently being mocked. This ties nicely in the central themes of the film, with the protagonist’s struggle to return home frequently being undermined by bureaucratic complications. Similarly, the self-important aggrandisement of the upper-classes is repeatedly punctured by others in various ways, leading to most of the film’s humour. Indeed, by far the most sympathetic characters of the film are the silent, enslaved characters on the periphery, who remain unfazed by the scenes playing out before them.

Almost every aspect of the film feels tailor-made to disorientate; some scenes repeat lines multiple times within the same conversations, while others are completely derailed when they are interrupted by the internal monologue of a hitherto unseen character, or, in one particularly memorable instance, by a stray llama. The central desire of Zama to leave, and the constant obstructions to this are echoed by scenes which, while entertaining, often lead nowhere, leaving the character stranded in a situation from which he desperately wants to escape. Even the film itself appears to delight in mocking Zama, with these scenes often punctuated by a jaunty score to contrast his despair.

While difficult to describe, and even more difficult to recommend, there has never been a film like Zama. It’s not for everyone, but the film continues to play on the mind long after the credits have rolled, with further thought allowing the more surreal moments to snap sharply into focus. It may not be the most accessible film then, but it’s certainly one of the most unique and, if you’re willing to put the effort in, the most rewarding.

Did you know? Zama was Argentina's official submission for the 'Best Foreign Language Film' category of the 90th Academy Awards in 2018.

Zama is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 14 June

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